The 2016 Senate contests are worth watchingPolitically Aware Thursday, September 3rd, 2015
Commentary: Politically Aware
The 24/7 coverage of Trump-a-palooza and Clinton-mail makes it hard to remember there are other presidential candidates, much less other races. The 2016 Senate contests are worth keeping an eye on, though, as control of the upper chamber is once again up for grabs.
Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2014, when Democrats elected in their 2008 sweep couldn’t defend seats in the more conservative non-presidential electorate. The tables are turned in 2016, with Republicans defending 24 seats in a presidential election year, including swing seats they gained in their 2010 rout. To reclaim control, Democrats need a net gain of four seats if they retain the White House and five if they don’t (the vice president breaks ties).
The most likely Democratic pick-up is Illinois, where Sen. Mark Kirk won a surprise 2010 victory in President Obama’s home state. Illinois voters chose a Republican governor last year, but haven’t elected a Republican senator in a presidential year since 1972. Democrats are excited about Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s chances even if she has to survive a primary. Overcoming a stroke gives Kirk a good narrative, but he hasn’t helped himself with odd statements, including calling bachelor Sen. Lindsey Graham a “bro with no ho.”
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is the next target. The man he beat in 2010, beloved liberal Sen. Russ Feingold, thrilled Democrats by agreeing to a rematch. Wisconsin is considered a swing state, but elections vary by turnout of the highly polarized electorate, not persuasion of a movable middle. Feingold remains well liked, should win handily if Wisconsin goes for the Democratic presidential nominee, and might even squeak by in a presidential loss.
Polling, candidate issues and the effect of the presidential race make the next tier of races harder to predict. Pennsylvania should be fertile ground for Democrats, but Sen. Pat Toomey has worked hard to moderate his Club for Growth image, and Democratic leaders are trying to prevent a rematch against former Rep. Joe Sestak. Former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland leads incumbent Sen. Rob Portman in Ohio polls, but most expect that gap to close as the quiet Portman gets his name back in the news. The race could turn on whether popular Gov. John Kasich is on the national Republican ticket. Ditto for Florida, where the presence of Sen. Marco Rubio or former Gov. Jeb Bush on the national ticket or a competitive primary could erase early Democratic polling advantages.
North Carolina and New Hampshire could be competitive if Democrats can land strong candidates as they did in Arizona, where a wave election or a retirement by Sen. John McCain could expand the map. At the moment, Republicans only see two real pick-up opportunities: Nevada and Colorado. The former is a statistical dead heat despite Republicans getting Rep. Joe Heck as their preferred candidate. In the latter, a state party in disarray has kept Republicans from recruiting a top tier candidate.
As for California, most expect the Democratic primary to determine the successor to retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer.
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